Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments
By R. Jay Wallace
Harvard University Press, 275 pages, $39.95

In the rich and various pages of Enlightenment thought, there are several fairly well developed psychologies offered in justification of political and moral theories. In the absence of a coherent account of human nature, after all, disquisitions on government and principles of right conduct are merely castles in the air.

This chapter of Enlightenment thought was prefigured in the immensely influential writings of John Locke, who had set about in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) to develop a mental science”a psychology”following the path established by Isaac Newton. Thus do we find the Lockean mind comprised of elementary sensations that are combined by bonds of association into simple and then ever more complex ideas, just as the corpuscular universe of Newton, through gravitational forces, comes to possess large and complex bodies. The Lockean sensations are “corpuscular,” the binding force of association “gravitational.” In the patrimony of Newton and Locke, eighteenth- century British and French writers were at pains to throw off the burdensome and misleading authority of scholasticism and rationalism, which, as they construed these traditions, would have us somehow deducing any number of “truths” from abstract premises otherwise unavailable to ordinary experience.

The alternative to all this (an alternative yielding in Newton’s hands scientific discoveries of unprecedented power and precision) was to take the facts of the world as these are found by direct observation and only then attempt to organize them under general laws. The approach was to be that so trenchantly advanced by Francis Bacon: systematic, empirical, public, and available to anyone with ordinary powers of perception and unprejudiced judgment.

What, then, of morals? One cannot perceive rightness and wrongness or good and evil in the external world of things or happenings. The domain of morality seems the quintessential domain of abstract rationality in which the senses are less a tool than a problem. The empiricists’ answer here generated an entire school of moral thought sometimes referred to as “Moral Sense Theory” or “British Sentimentalism.” It included Francis Hutcheson, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Adam Smith, Bishop Butler, David Hume, and many others.

Though disagreeing among themselves even on fundamental principles, members of the school shared this much: that moral terms must refer to something ultimately observable; that the reference of such terms is a sentiment or feeling of approbation or revulsion; that the moral quality of an act is determined by the sentiments it excites; that at the core of morality is a distinctly human nature inclined toward social and political forms of association; that, accordingly, the moral sense is part of the common heritage of humanity and is thus likely to be the same at base even under culturally dissimilar conditions.

Various paradoxes have stalked defenders of this tradition and fortified defenders of the radically different tradition given its late-Enlightenment voice in the works of Immanuel Kant. Surely there is more to morality than feeling, and surely nothing in a feeling as such can create a moral imperative to action. Moreover, the mark of moral responsibility is the actor’s freedom to choose a course of action or reach a moral judgment. But if the moral dimensions of life are causally brought about by natural sentiments”if “right” and “wrong” are the consequences of a kind of emotional reflex”then the moral agent is merely an instrument of his own dispositions. As Aristotle had taught, the moral side of life certainly includes such emotions as anger and love. The moral question, however, has to do not with the emotion itself, but also with the things toward which we are emotionally disposed to react”as, for instance, virtue (toward which we react with affection) and vice (toward which we react with contempt). What is at issue is not the sentiments of affection and contempt, but the judgment of what deserves such attitudes and feelings. The judgment being irreducibly rational, a moral form of life then is seen as the gift of reason.

Kant, of course, went much further. If an action is impelled by any desire arising from the contingent psychological or biological facts of life, then it is determined by these and cannot therefore be moral at all. We are at once natural and rational beings. As creatures of nature we occupy the natural realm and are determined in our actions by the laws of nature. As rational beings we occupy the “intelligible” realm in which actions are determined not by causes but by reasons; by justifications grounded in principles that are moral as such. Actions are morally right or wrong, then, to the extent that they instantiate or violate a moral maxim.

In Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments R. Jay Wallace contributes his own interesting thoughts and arguments to this now venerable debate between the sentimentalist and Kantian traditions. The daunting task he sets out to accomplish is at once to provide an account of moral responsibility based on what Sir Peter Strawson has called the “reactive emotions” (love, gratitude, guilt, resentment, indignation), as well as an account that takes seriously the claims of determinism, nondeterminism, and compatibilism within the context of morality. In a manner rather self-consciously eclectic he seeks to retain the realistic psychology of the moral-sense theorists but at the same time to confer on moral beings “general powers of reflective self-control.” The overall agenda of the book is usefully set forth early:


First, we cannot establish what it is to be a morally responsible agent unless we first understand the stance of holding someone responsible”the stance of the moral judge, rather than of the agent who is judged. Second, determining what the conditions of responsibility are will require an excursion into normative moral theory: we will need to investigate our principles of fairness, to see what they entail about the conditions under which it would be fair to hold people responsible.

Wallace is careful to distinguish between the mere having of a reactive emotion and its propriety. Accordingly, one might correctly regard an action as worthy of resentment, even if resentment is not actually felt; and one may experience resentment where it is not warranted. Moreover, not all expectations are moral. To hold one morally responsible is to have a moral expectation that, when unfulfilled, yields moral resentment. Again, it is not the experienced emotions or feelings that populate the domain of moral responsibility. Judgment is the invariable accessory to all reactive emotions associated with holding others morally responsible.

Wallace, it should be noted, is centrally concerned with the issue of determinism and moral freedom, and whether the best arguments are likely to be found on the side of determinism, nondeterminism, or compatibilism. The strict determinist contends that a complete description of the world at a given time predicts all future states of the world, provided the (determinative) laws of nature are known. As Wallace puts it, “For any action that is performed, it is never open to any agent . . . to render false a proposition that describes the action.” Freedom, on this construal, must be utterly incompatible with determinism.

When the incompatibilist insists that determinism renders the concepts of praise and blame jejune, Wallace’s cautious rejoinder is that, though the incompatibilist’s rationale is sound, basic human tendencies have been overlooked. It is just the case, reasons Wallace (here following a line set out in Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”), that human beings in their social and interpersonal relationships are moved to judge actions as blameworthy or praiseworthy. These natural inclinations are bound up with reactive emotions and attitudes, and this would remain the case even if determinism is true.

What Wallace seems to be arguing for here is some sort of naturalistic psychology of human types: a kind of “moral ethology” according to which we express approval or condemnation as a result of certain inborn dispositions. There is an air of the ipse dixit in all of this and, though versions of moral intuitionism can be philosophically deep and convincing, Wallace’s treatise seems rather weak here. For the scholar who would undertake the task of assessing competing moral systems, of what benefit is it to learn that human beings are somehow inclined by nature to praise and blame? How is this inclination to be understood and then absorbed into a defensible moral theory?

To hold one morally responsible, Wallace says, is to have an expectation which, when unrequited, naturally arouses such reactive emotions as resentment and indignation. Again, this can be played out within a rigidly deterministic framework and we will still hold others (and ourselves) morally responsible, insists Wallace, for essential to such holdings are the expectations and then the entirely natural human reactions when these are unfulfilled. Some form of compatibilism, therefore, may be espoused without fear of forfeiting what is necessary for the grounding of morals. What is necessary is the “stance,” the preparedness to expect certain conduct and to regard as apt reactive emotional responses when that conduct is not forthcoming.

One of Wallace’s principle objectives is to offer a developed version of compatibilism in order to preserve both the overall deterministic metaphysics guiding scientific thought and the autonomy presupposed by moral thought. He seeks to accomplish this by arguing along the lines of Harry Frankfurt’s thesis: One remains responsible for one’s action even in the absence of any viable alternative course of action. Determinism may be true, says Wallace, but Jane Austen is still granted those “powers of reflective self-control” needed to write Pride and Prejudice.

But what of these powers? Does self-control refer to moral or merely intellectual autonomy? Is it a control conferred by the determined operations of the brain? Or is there a specific, non-substitutable writer, the absence of whose unique and morally defined search for truth in life would forever rule out the possibility of Pride and Prejudice ? To the compatibilist this rejoinder is offered: Writing a book is, indeed, caused. It is caused by the will of the author. And the will of the author is caused by the author herself.

In fairness, Wallace’s failure here”for I do judge it to be a failure”merely installs his name among a list of eminent thinkers who have tried to place a square moral peg into a round physical hole. The failure begins with the project itself. The project is to render the facts of human behavior conformable to what is taken to be that universal causal nexus within which everything occurs. But it is the very phenomenon of moral judgment that urges some sort of dualism on our ontologies, and this cannot be set aside merely by assuming that everything is physical. In other words, for those who take certain events to be irreducibly moral, any and all references to the determinative laws of physical nature are simply beside the point. In a thoughtful passage in his concluding chapter, Wallace is tempted to adhere to this recognition, but he then returns to the defense of a competing compatibilism.

Needless to say, human actions are impelled by any number of conditions, internal and external, rendering the actions more or less predictable. Where the force of circumstance is such as to nullify the results of moral judgment and moral resolve, the actor is generally thought of as the victim of coercion or duress and thus comes to enjoy some degree of exculpation. It is not at all clear what would count as “mitigating” on a compatibilist account of moral “freedom.” But in a densely argued chapter (“The Lure of Liberty”), Wallace does offer an acceptable notion of mitigation: Where conditions actually defeat the morally responsible aims of an actor”aims arising from the actor’s powers of reflective self-control”there is no need for mitigation, for the actor has done nothing wrong. And where conditions defeat not the aims but the very powers themselves, there is nothing to be mitigated, for there is not an authentic action in the first instance. The Kantian echo is most audible in the concluding pages of the chapter, where Wallace reminds the reader that the “can” pertaining to responsibility is the “can” of rational power, not the “can” of alternative courses of action.

In this, too, there seems to be an unwillingness to press on toward conclusions different from those Wallace embraces. His argument for compatibilism includes the claim that what matters for moral responsibility is not freedom to choose from an array of undetermined courses of action but the power of reflective self-control. What matters in assigning such responsibility are those reactive emotions tied to moral expectations: expectations warranted just in case those we hold responsible do have such powers of self-control.

What does not matter, on this account”and what on the determinist’s account does not even exist”is a set of “alternate possibilities” which the actor can freely tap. But then just what is the moral dilemma facing a responsible actor? The principles of practical reason are, presumably, those that are to be dispositive at realistic choice-points; at just those junctures at which we actually can realize any number of significant outcomes and must choose the path that matches up with a moral maxim worthy of our allegiance. The possession of reactive emotions and some inward power of self-control in an otherwise and previously established order may allow one to perform in a moral way. The problem, however, is not that it would be a good or bad performance, but that it would be a mere performance.

R. Jay Wallace has written a book worth reading and, that rare specimen today, a book worth writing. He has taken on a foundational question: Just what is it we are doing when we hold others morally responsible? He has wondered aloud if such holdings even make sense. He has sought shelter in a compatibilism likely to be rejected by those adhering to the far more interesting theories of determinism and incompatibilism. Yet, he prevails on us to accept his own position. He prevails on our capacity to choose rationally from “alternate possibilities” and thereupon to be disposed to act in certain ways toward others. How could it be otherwise?

Daniel N. Robinson is Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University and an occasional lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Oxford. His books include Aristotle’s Psychology , Psychology and Law , and An Intellectual History of Psychology.